Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) New-look Cavaliers impress, blow-out Celtics in first game. Things looked different — Cleveland actually tried on defense, for one. George Hill was solid defending pick-and-rolls creating turnovers with his length, plus made the extra rotation — and when he did so did J.R. Smith. And LeBron James. The Cavaliers blitzed Kyrie Irving at times, but what was impressive is the guys rotating behind that blitz. All-season long that had been lacking in Cleveland and it led them to have the second-worst defense in the NBA, but on Sunday afternoon in Boston the effort was there.
Combine that with a near triple-double from LeBron James, and 17 from Jordan Clarkson, and you got a Cleveland rout of Boston in the first game for the new-look Cavaliers.
Here is the obligatory “don’t read too much into one game” disclaimer. I want to see what Cleveland looks like after some practices during the All-Star break, and a couple of weeks of games together — and when teams get some scouting reports on them and game plan a little.
But for one game, the Cavaliers where impressive. And it wasn’t just the defense. The Cavaliers dropped 64 points in the first half on the best defense in the NBA this season, then put the game away with an 11-0 fourth-quarter run. It was such an easy win LeBron sat the fourth quarter, a rarity this season. Hill had 12 points and ran the pick-and-roll with LeBron like a veteran (better than LeBron and Isaiah Thomas ever did), Nance brought energy, and the entire thing fit.
Here’s the thing that most should worry the rest of the East — LeBron looked like he was having fun again. He was energized. And an energized and smiling LeBron is a force of nature.
2) Paul Pierce gets his jersey retired by Celtics. After that game — one a lot of Boston fans would have left early had it not been for this — Paul Pierce’s number 34 jersey was retired by the Celtics. Deservedly so. He is the greatest Celtics since the Bird era, and he helped bring another banner to Boston. Check out the highlights here (and if you want to see the entire hour ceremony, follow this link).
3) Utah routs Trail Blazers for a ninth straight win, Utah back in the playoff mix. Rudy Gobert is back and the Jazz defense is stifling, Ricky Rubio has found his comfort level in Quin Snyder’s offense (although he was out Sunday), Donovan Mitchell looks like the Rookie of the Year, and the Utah Jazz are back.
Sunday that was because of Joe Ingles, who dropped a career-high 24 points, then the rookie Mitchell knocking down his final three shots and a few free throws to end the game and cap off a 27-point night. The Jazz opened the second half on a 22-5 run and won the third 38-19 to give them a lead that Damian Lillard (39 points) could not make up. For Utah, it was a good sign that just-acquired Jae Crowder looked comfortable scoring 15 points and going 3-of-7 from three (he had started to find his shot near the end in Cleveland).
This was a huge win in the standings.
Written off a few weeks back, Utah went into Portland Sunday and beat the Trail Blazers handily 115-96. The win improves the Jazz to 28-28 and has them just 1.5 points out of the playoffs in the West — there are now only 2.5 games separating six-seed Portland and 10-seed Utah. The bottom of the West is going to be the race to watch — fivethirtyeight.com has Utah with an 89 percent chance of climbing into and making the playoffs (with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers grabbing the other two spots at 64 percent, which would leave the Clippers and Pelicans on the outside looking in).